“One’s real life is often the life that one does not lead.” ~ Ocsar Wilde
I’ve been thinking a lot about the shaping power of story. In particular, the incredible power of the stories I tell myself about who I am, where I come from, and the person I am capable of becoming.
We are an innately narrative species. It’s impossible for us to perceive the universe outside of the context of story. We understand things and people by constructing stories around them to explain them to ourselves.
Our stories tell us who we are. Or maybe it’s more accurate to say it this way: We become defined by the stories we tell ourselves. I don’t just mean the shallower mini-tales promoted by New Age philosophy and positive psychology, such as “I am smart and successful and people really like me” or “I am not a smoker, I am not a smoker, I am not a smoker,” etc. Those have some power, or not, depending on how much the one saying them is willing to buy into his own PR. No, what I’m talking about are the deep stories that live inside each of us. That unique foundational story you embrace that defines who you are, and who you aren’t. It’s the primary story you are living in, and living out, every day. It’s the story you have created to explain yourself to yourself, to define your identity and your role in the world.
In other words, your Defining Narrative.
Like any story, your Defining Narrative includes some key elements:
- A compelling Conflict ~ That is, the primary struggle the main character (you) faces over and over, trying to resolve or overcome.
- An Inciting Incident ~ The event that started it all, launching you into your conflict-driven quest.
- A Controlling Idea ~ The central question or theme around which your entire story (that is, your life) revolves.
All of these collude to cast you, the protagonist, into a Defining Role. That role then becomes the primary defining force in your life. It either limits or allows, depending on the parameters of the story you have chosen to embrace.
Once your Defining Narrative has been set deep in your bones, it is very difficult to for you to act “out of character” ~ i.e. to be someone you don’t believe you are. And it is equally hard for you to change some pattern or “story line” you keep living out over and over, as if repeating a critical scene in a movie trying to get a different outcome. But instead you end up just reinforcing the outcome you’ve gotten before. Because that’s exactly what you’re subconsciously doing ~ reinforcing the narrative you most deeply believe is true, even if you’d rather believe otherwise.
You are following a script as deftly as any A-list actor. More deftly, actually, because you are literally “lost in the role.”
We cling to our Defining Narrative like a life preserver in the open sea, even if the story we are living is painful or self-destructive…because without it, we would lose all sense of who we are.
The problem with all this, of course, is that not all stories are true.
And that includes Defining Narratives.
I’ll dive into that part of it more deeply next week. In the meantime, take some time this week to think about your current Defining Narrative:
What is the central conflict of your life? Perhaps you can name it this way: It is the thing you are perpetually trying to struggle against or overcome in some way. It is the deep dissonance that repeatedly drives you forward, that forces you to engage, that will not let you rest for long.
What was your inciting incident? That is, the event or season of your life that launched you into your central conflict.
What is the controlling idea of your life? As I mentioned above, this is the foundational question or theme around which your entire life revolves. It’s the one question that you most want answered, and which ultimately motivates everything you do. It is always tied in some way to the central conflict.
Part 2: How Defining Narratives are formed, and what if yours is actually untrue? Click here.